Alex Moreland speaks to Mark Gill, director of Morrissey biopic England is Mine…
So, first of all – can you tell us a little bit about the development of England is Mine? What was your starting point?
Well, my starting point was growing up in the same area of Manchester as Morrissey – literally a couple of streets away – discovering the band when I was a teenage lad, just falling in love with that music really, that voice. I just thought his lyrics were… Like a million other people speak to you directly about your life. And it always stuck with me. I just thought, having grown up in that area of Manchester, which is not a ghetto by any stretch of the imagination, but I always wondered how he managed to survive it. So, that was my starting point. I never really wanted to make a film about The Smiths. It was always that birth of an artist, which I thought was more interesting to me. Yeah, so that was the starting point, just wondering who he was, and convinced that those early records were written by Stephen and not by what became Morrissey.
Would you say it’s quite a personal movie to you?
Yeah, incredibly so. There’s a lot of me and my co-writer [William Thacker] in that film, because one of the best things about Morrissey and his lyrics in The Smiths was that ability to connect with all types of people, really. So, I felt that he felt like that, and I felt like that, then surely other people who might watch this film might feel like that. So we should try and make the film as universal as we possibly could, yet still be aware that we are making a film about the birth of an icon, essentially.
Well, that leads to what I was going to ask you next. He’s quite an iconic figure, and he connects with so many different people; were you worried at all that your vision of the movie might not meet everyone’s expectations? Was there a certain pressure connected with it?
I think, you know, I was under no illusion it was guaranteed it would meet people’s expectations, because, and that’s borne out in the reviews that we’ve had. I think people want to let themselves, they want to see that magic. But I’ve never been comfortable when I’ve watched biopics that try and recreate that magic. Also, people want to view my film through the lens of Morrissey. I almost prefer people who don’t know anything about him to watch it, because I think it gets a fair viewing then. But yeah, I was totally prepared for what we got, nothing came as a surprise. Which is, in a sense, slightly disappointing as well.
Were you concerned about the distinction between being accurate to what happened in his life, but also trying to make a movie of it?
Yeah. We were aware of that, we knew there were key things that happened that we kept in mind when we were trying to put a film together. But he’s not an explosive character, Morrissey. I mean he says some explosive things, we’re all under no illusions about that. But when we looked at his life, we thought ‘here’s a young man who is really, really struggling to find his place in the world, like millions of people do’. We just anchored ourselves to certain key moments that we knew had happened, like we knew that his Dad left when he was 16. We knew that he worked for the internal revenue service, we knew that one of his friends became ill, passed away. We knew about his meeting with Johnny Marr. So those became your big beats really, and from there you’re trying to fictionalise it.
None of us had any idea what was said in that room apart from Johnny and Morrissey, but even their versions of those events are contradictive. So, we just could tell the story that we felt we wanted to tell and concentrate on the things that we felt were important – which became about women in his life more than anything else. His depression, going through that, because it is an illness. We did consider, how do we portray this? We just did it in a very honest way, I think.
Something you’ve spoken about with regards to the film was this idea that ‘Morrissey’ is sort of a mask or a persona put forward by Steven as a way to survive.
Like we all do.
I was wondering if you could kind of elaborate on that a bit, and what you meant by that?
We all present an idealised version of ourselves. It came from the fact that, I think I once heard him say, that he never performs on stage, he just is himself, and it’s the only time he can ever be himself. So, I wondered, does he mean that we never see Steven? I just feel that everybody presents a version of themselves, and I think with him it is just highlighted, because of his personality and then his status. I think, with anybody, anybody has that front. You see some of the most arrogant people you would probably meet in your life and probably underneath they are probably the most insecure. You often wonder, how do we all survive? We all try things out in our teens and I think he just found something that he was comfortable with and I think, his mum may have had something to do with that. She’s a very strong, perceptive woman.
How do you approach something like that? How do you create a strong character in a movie when you also know that they’re a real person who, I suppose, could see this movie?
We treated Steven completely separately from Morrissey, is the thing. It’s really as simple as that. We know where he ends up. We know in the final shot of the film, we know who’s behind the door at that point. Even still, it is another eight months in reality before he stopped calling himself Steven, when he demanded everyone to start calling him Morrissey. So for us, it was really easy to just write about this kid called Steven and look for those character traits that might manifest themselves later on in his life and explore those.
He is a passive character; things tend to happen to him. But that’s life as well. Not every film has to throw punches, not every character has to be explosive. There is room in this world for films, which are a little bit more gentle I think. So, we just tried to treat Steven as much as a real human being as we could and tapped into ourselves. Tapped into people that we knew. It’s all there in the lyrics I think. That was always the good thing. The lyrics gave me and William an insight into what his head might have been like pre-Smiths.
So, the movie is called England is Mine, and Morrissey is often viewed as this quintessentially British figure. I was wondering, why do you think he has got that reputation or perception?
I don’t know really. It is hard to pinpoint. I know the time he was brought up. I mean, he’s older than us. That time, that period of time that he brought up. I don’t know.
Fair enough! I was doing some research on him earlier and read that a lot of people think of him that way, I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on it.
No, I have never really thought about that! [laughs] It’s just something that I just didn’t consider. I do think it is probably the things he was exposed to, and I think he also lived in a very, very strong Irish community as well. That’s all there. If you look at him now, he does look like a typical burly Irishman, as opposed to the waif that exploded onto the scene in the 80s.
On a slightly different note, I understand that England is Mine is your first feature length movie. I was wondering, how did that compare to working on your previous short films?
I have said this to lots of people, it’s no comparison really. You are still doing the same things, you’re just doing it for longer and more intense and bigger crew and more at stake. The short films are a grounding and I don’t think, without getting the recognition we did at short film stage, at short film level, we would ever have got this film made. Especially when we got nominated for the Oscar, I think that… People put a lot of store in that, and it really helped us. People began to trust us I think.
I think that the short films were great, but I never really saw them as real preparation for this. It’s the most intense and exciting and brilliant experience of my life, making this feature film. That’s the truth. I loved every single minute of it on set. It wasn’t without its challenges and it wasn’t without its difficulties, but I’m not going to complain about working sixteen hours a day for twenty-seven days to make something that I’ve always wanted to make. And the response from the audience, again, that was nice, because I have experienced that at short film level. That experience with my short films we saw that with an audience, so it’s really exciting to do it again with a feature this time.
As a director, in terms of your approach, how much of what you do comes down to choices that you make in the moment?
You do… There is typically a lot of planning goes on in advance on the production side and with the look of it. I work quite a lot with Nick, my DOP [Nick D Knowland]; I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to look. I didn’t want it to look like an idealised version of the 70s. I wanted it to look like how I remember it as a child – sodium street lights, strobe colours – and again, we have been weirdly condemned for that. I don’t know, maybe we have been condemned by people who have never lived in the North of England themselves.
Sometimes I knew exactly what I wanted, going into a scene, in terms of the camera placement, the camera movement etc. But mostly, I was blessed with such a brilliant collection of talent on this film. I just feel that every day I’d go on set and I’d just wanna discover something with the actors. I didn’t want to box them in and go right, you’re going to stand there, you’re going to stand there, I’m going to shoot it this way. Sometimes we wouldn’t have any ideas of what we were gonna do before we went on set, and for good reason, because I think the actors need to be part of that process. We need to be able to discover something together and they need to be able to move freely around set.
Then, when you watch it, it really just becomes pretty obvious where to put the camera at that point. Apparently according to Nick, who’s seventy-four years old, it’s a very 70s way of doing things, which I didn’t know. All by intuition, I think we just ended up with a feeling of a film that felt like everything about it – the look of it, the feel of it, just the way we shot it – was of that time. I think it worked. Some of my best, my favourite scenes are the ones where we didn’t plan anything really, we just went on the set. We knew what the characters motivations were and all that stuff but in terms of what they were going to do, how we were going to shoot it. Then it’s really lovely that moment of discovery. It’s just real, there’s a lot of energy there, and the actors absolutely love that, they really loved being involved.
Would you say you’ve got quite a collaborative approach then?
Yeah, I think it has to. I think some directors can be a bit dictatorial, is that the word? I’m not of that mindset. When I know I want something I’ll convey that, but I am always open to better ideas. We all want to make the best film possible. It’s not about me, it’s about that film. So, it’s a collaborative process, that true. I love it. I mean that’s why I have a co-writer instead of writing on my own and I think I know what I’m good at and then where my weakness are. So, to work through my weaknesses, break out the collaborators in every department.
Who would you say are you chief creative influences as a director?
God. Good question. I think people who keep it really simple. It’s interesting that when we premiered the film in Edinburgh, Mark Cousins, the film critic, reached out to us and invited us over to his house where he lives in Edinburgh for lunch to say how much he loves the film; I was absolutely staggered by that generosity. We had a conversation then and in some ways he sort of identified that, because obviously if you know Mark, who I’ve got to know now, he knows everything about films. He knows everything about films, incredible. He looked at it and saw it is a sort of classic style.
That is where I’m at right now, so I think that things I grew up on – which might sound weird – like Spielberg. There is nobody better if you want to watch the camera do all the work and save the editor a job. Yeah, so Spielberg. Billy Wilder I loved, still love Billy Wilder’s work. I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. I think he is just one of the best around. Other people like Kieślowski, I just love. There’s that Dekalog series he did on Polish TV – there is a real simplicity to it and it doesn’t get in the way of the actors, which for me, what else are you meant to look at on-screen if not the actors? I mean I love spectacle and I love beautiful shots but it’s secondary.
I suppose any sort of director who gets the best out of actors, I have always watched their films – like Sidney Lumet, I just think he’s amazing, another great 70s director. A guy I’ve just discovered recently called Joseph Losey who directed a film called The Servant with Dirk Bogarde, again just incredible use of the camera and the actor. The camera… there is no cut, it’s just one continuous take. Not a long take like Kieślowski, but it’s that dance between the actor and camera. Any director who does that I think, it’s a more classical style I guess.
Outside of that, I’m a big photography fan. Like Todd Hido, William Eccleston, Daido Moriyama, a lot of Japanese photographers, and obviously The Smiths.
Yeah, I mean you take it from everywhere. I think when you’re the director, your finger is in every department, sound, production, so I’ve got my own personal interests feed into what I do so… I’m very lucky, it’s a great job.
On another note again, is there anything you can tell us about any upcoming projects that you might be working on?
I’ve got a script meeting today, and a development deal at the beginning of this year. It’s for an adaptation of a book called The Testimony. It’s set in the near future – the near future as in maybe next year. It’s just about a world-wide event that affects every single human being on the planet. We tell it through about six or seven different people. It explores things like is there any such thing as the truth? Who can you trust when there is not truth? But it’s more to do with, if you’ve ever heard of a thing called confirmation bias? Everybody has it, we all have this bias. It’s about that, this world, this event viewed through such different biases. That’s the best way to explain.
That sounds quite interesting!
I’ll do what they do in Hollywood and just say, it’s a bit like Magnolia meets Take Shelter. It’s got that sort of multi-character, tandem narrative going on, but it’s an unexplained event appears on the surface. Based on a great book by a great science fiction writer called James Smythe. We are talking about doing something together, something, an original piece together as well.
That is pretty cool! We’ll have to do another interview when that comes out.
Yeah, great! I’ve also just optioned another book based on an old American spiritualist called John Spear. Just do some research into him. His story is absolutely belting. It’s incredible.
Finally, then, to round it all off, what is the most important thing you would like someone to take away from watching England is Mine?
God, that’s a tough question! I just think, as long as they just think it’s an honest portrayal of a young person struggling with many different things in their lives and trying to do something with it. How do you take depression, mental illness, not feeling like you fit in, shyness, vulnerability? How do you turn that into a positive? Which is what he managed to do. Many people go through these things. I’ve always… I was never cripplingly shy when I was growing up but I had my moments of insecurity and I think Morrissey and The Smiths era were a huge inspiration for me trying work out what I did.
So, yeah, I just think that as long as it feels honest and truthful that we’ve tried to make a story that deals with sensitive subjects in a sensitive way, then that is all you can hope for.
Mark Gill, thank you very much!
England is Mine is available now to download and on DVD.